“Biggie Smalls is the illest.”

That simple phrase, rhymed by the Notorious B.I.G. on his 1994 song “The What” and used as a part of the cut ’n’ paste chorus of “Unbelievable,” is the truth – simple and concise. And though it’s been 20 years since Christopher Wallace’s tragic death on March 9, 1997, that “is” should never be changed to a “was.” Biggie’s influence on hip-hop, music, style, and popular culture are indelible – pillars of the present, not artifacts of the past.

Let’s talk about archetypes. Without Big, there is no 21st-century “rap superstar.” To some degree, every major hip-hop artist who has come after him – Jay Z, 50 Cent, Drake, or whomever – has used the formula he and Sean “Puffy” Combs perfected. A from-the-block MC with ambitions of pop-level success, Biggie undertook the Herculean task of reaching a national audience by being many things at once while still maintaining his authenticity and his distinct identity as “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Rougher than the roughnecks yet smooth enough to be a seducer, he embodied contradictions so well that his various personas didn’t feel like contradictions anymore – they were charismatic elements of a multi-faceted persona.

He was the gangsta not to be fucked with (“Who Shot Ya”), the lothario women couldn’t leave alone (“Big Poppa,” “One More Chance”), the stressed-out ’hood nihilist (“Everyday Struggle,” “Respect”), the super MC whose skills were always up front (“Kick In The Door”) and, the conspicuous capitalist who flaunted his expensive tastes (“I Love The Dough”). He was hero and antihero: the street kid who had gone legit and blown up – but not so legit he could be accused of going soft or ditching the borough that nurtured him.

No song encapsulates hip-hop’s rags-to-riches ethos as well as “Juicy.” Biggie’s official debut single told us a lot about where he – and hip-hop itself – was going. With rhymes like: “Birthdays was the worst days/ Now we sip Champagne when we thirsty” the rapper on “Juicy” is a more polished version of the young man of a year earlier who gave us “Party And Bullshit,” the raucous track from the Who’s The Man? soundtrack. This new delivery was still a thunderous bellow, but the roar was refined – conversational and declarative. The subject matter had also changed: there were no beatdowns handed out or guns drawn on “Juicy.” Instead, he gave us an embellished account of his ascent from drug slinger to “rap singer” (pretty sure he never met Robin Leach). The kid from Bed-Stuy positioned himself as going from both “ashy to classy” and rejected to accepted—like hip-hop itself. What Biggie had achieved was the aspiration of every ghetto teen: rising above pointedly bleak circumstances. His entire aesthetic changed too: he went from rocking a bandana on his brow to sporting perfectly askew Kangols and Versace shades; his black hoodies turned into colorful Coogi sweaters and $1000 leathers. A full-on symbol of the come-up.

More than any other MC at the time, Biggie was equipped to personify hip-hop’s infiltration of the mainstream. He was versatile enough to make songs that were bangers for the streets and the clubs, as well as hits for the radio. There was a musicality to his flow which was effortlessly in the pocket. Take his show-stealing guest shot on Junior M.A.F.I.A’s “Gettin’ Money (The Get Money Remix)” for example: “Is Brooklyn in the house?!/ Without a doubt/ I’m the rapper with clout/ everybody yap about/ check it out/ guns I bust ‘em/ problems with my wife, don’t discuss ‘em/ coupes and Lear jets I lust them.” Big’s words bounce over the sampled bass line of Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” so well you might forget that the revered Rakim had rapped about being “paid in full” over the same loop years before.

And there’s the instantly iconic “Hypnotize.” “Poppa’s been smooth since the days of Underoos/never close, never choose to, bruise crews/do somethin’ to us, talk goes through us/girls walk to us/wanna do us, screw us/ Who, Poppa and Puff?/close like Starsky and Hutch, stick to clutch.” While some of his contemporaries relied on polysyllabic SAT words and speed demon rhymes to dazzle the listener, Big showed us that one must pen compelling songs to be truly “lyrical.” And he was a songwriter par excellence.

Of course, he could trade similes with the best of them (“My mind’s my 9 / my pen’s my MAC-10 / my target? All you wack niggas who started rappin’” – on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Player’s Anthem”), but what put him head and shoulders above his peers was his gift for storytelling. Always detailed and vivid, his rhymes were cinema for the mind’s eye – street tales tinged with drama (“Warning”), tragedy (“Me And My Bitch”) and humor (“I Got A Story To Tell”). He chronicled capers like he was a Donald Goines for the hip-hop generation. His were stories meant to both excite and affect. The morality may be gray, but the mortality is certain. Even on songs like “Somebody’s Gotta Die,” when it seems like the hero is about to get away with murder, the tale is punctuated by a plot twist that makes us question the final vengeful act.

Despite his 6’ 3”, 300-pound frame, booming baritone, and larger-than-life persona, what truly made Big so special were the small things he did so well. The sprinkled-in details that made us feel like we knew characters like the bungling C-Roc, who confuses gasoline and kerosene on “Somebody’s . . .” or the R&B-loving murderer, Arizona Ron from “Niggas Bleed.” Big is, in part, defined by the little doses of comedy in otherwise grim anecdotes of criminal life (“It’s OK, she was old anyway” on “Gettin’ Money”) or the way he uses a pun to take the sting out of a rival’s claim that he had sex with his wife: “If Faye have twins she prolly have two Pacs (Get it? 2, Pac’s?!).”

Without going over our heads, Biggie kept us entertained at eye level. In doing so, he showed us that a rapper could aspire to the baller’s life and still be totally relatable.

Just like the man himself said, he is the illest.

 

Watch Notorious B.I.G. videos on Vevo.

(Photo by David Corio/Redferns)